When chef Miriam Donaldson started her fundraiser to revamp the kitchen at Petaluma Fairgrounds’ Herzog Hall this past July, her plan was to get ahead of fire season. During the Tubbs Fire and the Kincade Fire, the dilapidated kitchen was used to cook thousands of meals for evacuees.
“I have a hard time keeping up with the needs that we have for when we catch on fire because we keep catching on fire,” Donaldson said in a Sunday, Aug. 16 interview, the same day that thunderstorms brought more than 10,000 lightning strikes to Northern California, sparking hundreds of wildfires.
The wildfires—and the Covid-19 pandemic—have highlighted many of the weaknesses in America’s safety net. For Donaldson, who thinks of Petaluma’s community kitchens as public assets, the North Bay’s repeated crises have revealed how we have allowed these kitchens to deteriorate.
“As I see it, these kitchens are public infrastructure and public utilities which have just not been maintained in the way that they will need to be maintained for the direction that climate change is going to keep leading us,” Donaldson says.
In July, Donaldson launched a GoFundMe campaign seeking $20,000 to improve the infrastructure and appliances in the Herzog Hall kitchen. These changes will maximize the kitchen’s safety and efficiency, as well as reduce the environmental impact of cooking for so many.
Donaldson, who owns the Petaluma restaurant Wishbone with her husband, Joshua Norwitt, got to know many of the community kitchens of Sonoma County while working as a tireless volunteer during the 2017 and 2019 fire seasons.
On the fundraiser page, Donaldson explains that, while there are nonprofit groups that provide food and care to those in need, the on-the-ground labor of cooking and serving meals during these disasters has mostly been done by volunteer chefs and community members who just show up to help.
In at least one important way, Petaluma is an ideal location for a kitchen used to serve evacuees. Petaluma is a triangle of land less prone to fires, prompting Donaldson to call it “a little croissant of Not-Fucked.”
“During fires,” Donaldson says, “Petaluma Fairgrounds ends up housing most of the county’s evacuees who need shelter. Fragile elders, Latinx people, disenfranchised people with nowhere else to go—if you don’t have a friend with a big house [outside of an evacuation zone], you end up at the Petaluma Fairgrounds.”
“A kitchen that is built to perform relief is cheaper and safer to run than one cobbled together in a panic,” she wrote. By Monday, Aug. 31, she had raised $8,412 of her goal.
As with so many other residents looking for ways to contribute, Donaldson’s disaster response work began in 2017. During the Tubbs Fire, tens of thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, lost power or lost their homes entirely. This left thousands of people needing to eat.
In the early days of the Tubbs Fire, Donaldson received calls from other food-industry professionals, including Heather Irwin, a longtime food critic for the Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine, and chef Duskie Estes, who were all scrambling to arrange and distribute meals to thousands of evacuees and first responders.
This was the fiery birth of Sonoma Family Meal (SFM), Irwin’s nonprofit emergency food network that has served more than 400,000 meals to Sonoma County residents impacted by crises. Donaldson was SFM’s founding chef.
Restaurant people, Donaldson observes, excel at hosting and comforting. In an agricultural area like Sonoma County, they’re also well-connected to farmers. That first year was about establishing a network of food suppliers, volunteers and available kitchens, as well as figuring out what everyone was good at.
Both the Tubbs and Kincade fires happened during October, each time leaving a community of farmers with harvested food they suddenly weren’t able to sell.
“Red Cross shows up with food, but they’re bringing in cold meals and packing up what doesn’t get eaten,” Donaldson explains. “That food isn’t cycling through our local food infrastructure.”
Donaldson says that when people are experiencing the trauma of displacement, they should have real, nourishing meals available.
“They shouldn’t have to eat a cupcake-flavored Pop-Tart unless that’s what they want,” Donaldson says.
Between farmers and restaurateurs, Sonoma County has abundant resources to feed its own residents fresh food in times of crisis. While Irwin amplified SFM’s cause, Donaldson worked on infrastructural logistics.
One of Donaldson’s first tasks was to go to the evacuation sites and take stock of their kitchens. She went to the Lucchesi Center, Petaluma Veterans Hall and Herzog Hall at the Petaluma Fairgrounds doing inspections, finding out what equipment was there and what functioned. She created posters explaining health-code protocols and how to operate things.
“I’m a great lover of community kitchens—whether it’s the Women’s Hall, the Grange or whatever random, amazing kitchen 12 bitches built in 1943—I love those kitchens a lot,” Donaldson says, noting that the county has a lot of kitchens that were built between the 1940s and 1970s.
“Some have been really well maintained,” she says. “A lot of the larger kitchens have not. I dispatched a chef to the Lucchesi Center [in Petaluma] to make an inventory. He came back with, ‘There’s a pair of tongs.’”
In 2019, when fire ravaged Sonoma County for the second time in three years, Donaldson says everyone was able to organize quickly and address more varied needs than in 2017.
The first time around, volunteers weren’t always prepared to assist people with needs beyond food, but in 2019, they knew what to anticipate, so things ran more smoothly. Every menu was translated into Spanish, and bilingual volunteers were there to assure people that ICE was not allowed on the premises. Kitchen crews worked to consciously reduce plastic waste. Cooks knew how many children to anticipate needing to feed.
When Covid-19 hit, Donaldson felt dreadful anticipation about how it might impact fire season.
“We normally house people at the big barn at the fairgrounds, but this year, there are Covid patients in quarantine there,” she says.
Additionally, Donaldson says that many of the strongest kitchen volunteers from past years are older people who cannot put themselves at risk of infection by cooking during the pandemic.
When this year’s Wallbridge Fire and Meyers Fire prompted evacuations, Donaldson’s core team quickly reassembled. When we spoke on Tuesday, Aug. 25, most of those evacuations were being lifted and she was feeling more confident about their ability to feed people displaced by fire during a pandemic.
As devastating as the LNU Lightning Complex Fires have been, they did not prompt the same degree or duration of food-need in Sonoma County as past fires have, Donaldson says.
Additionally, SFM, which now employs a full-time chef, has been feeding families in need for months—since shelter-in-place orders began.
But, with months to go before fire season ends, the risk of new fires and further displacement continues. As far as her team is concerned, Donaldson described the most recent fires as “a really good dress rehearsal.”
“What I think we’re going to end up doing—if it’s needed—is a food distribution center, with a combination of fresh prepared foods from local farms and also pantry items that don’t need heating or cooling,” she says.
For now, Donaldson is focused on fixing up Herzog Hall—whether or not there are more fires in the North Bay this year.
Donaldson says, “The best possible outcome is that we improve a community kitchen and don’t have to use it to feed desperate people. My whole goal is to have resources, and those will last more than a year …. We need a war chest.”
Find information about Donaldson’s fundraiser at bit.ly/herzogkitchen